Wednesday, November 14, 2012

An analogy

Walk with me, if you will, to an alternate reality.

You are still an undergraduate. You've decided that you want to go to graduate school. But there's a problem. In this world, none of your professors or academic advisers want to talk to you about graduate school, even though many (not all) of them have attended graduate school. They are happy to talk to you about jobs in industry, however. It is really hard to get advice about how to apply, or find out what it's like. And what information is out there either says that it the best thing ever, that anyone serious about their subject who doesn't go to grad school is somehow incomplete as a person, or tells you that it is hard, gruelling, bone crushing work that will eat your soul, your social life and your sanity. You suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but very few people will talk to you without resorting to these hyperbole.

Its rare for people, in any field, to go straight through. Most people wait a while. They go into industry first, make a few bucks, then decided to go into graduate school for a midlife promotion, or because they want to enter academia. For various reasons, you don't want to wait. Or at least, you want to think about the possibility of not waiting. Your peers all want to go into industry first. Some of them may see graduate school in their future, but certainly not now, and probably not to go into academia.

At the same time, outside of academia, graduate school is seen as a plus. Your family wants you to go to graduate school. Your family is encouraging you in this direction. Many of your family members (and those of your peers) have gone to grad school. Those that haven't seem to regret it. But none of them are academics, which is really what you want to do. They have advice about applying to and surviving graduate school. But they have no idea of how to go to graduate school and become a professor. The process of postdocs, tenure track and tenure is completely foreign to them.

Come to think of it, none of your female relatives survived graduate school. In fact, very few of your female professors went to grad school either. As you start looking into it, it seems that many women who go to graduate school drop out of their field entirely. If you are female, this is disheartening, especially since you love your field. Although, this may explain why, if you are female, people seemed to grow uncomfortable talking to you about graduate school.

You can get some advice on the internet, but who knows who these psuedo anonymous people who write academic blogs are? The other place you find any help is the National Honors Society conference. It has a panel on career prospects after college which spends some time on some issues surrounding graduate school, even on going on to become a professor. It's not the most useful panel at the conference. Much of the discussion is in vague generalities and the same useless advice you've heard before, but there are some thought provoking comments. You leave with a few friends to grab lunch. There is general displeasure with how the panel was conducted, but not for the reasons you think.

"I hate these discussions about going on to academia. There's so much more to one's career than that!"
"I liked the discussion about dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. Though I wish they'd done more than tell us what legal rights we have"
"Seriously. That's an issue that effects so many women, why don't people talk about that more, instead of discussing grad school?! I mean, is the issue of grad school just so big that it eclipses the other ones we could be having?


To all those who complain about the women in science events that focus on babies, I posit that for some, the search for trying to find a context in which one can talk about children and career is much like the scenario described above. Few role models, and the women with children don't want to talk about it because they want to be perceived as scientists, not mothers. Men of a certain generation have kids, but also have wives who have borne 51-100% of the cost of having them. I am not saying that it isn't important to talk about the other things that face women (sexist comments, sexual harassment, letters of rec that describe women's personality before their academic achievements  glass ceilings, two body problems without children, to name a few). I'm saying that, in my experience, it has been much easier to talk about many of these problems (sexual harassment being the obvious exception) with other colleagues than to talk about pregnancy or having kids, or pathways to stay in academia after having kids. If someone has a different experience, do share. I am generalizing from a sample of one.

Forums for women need to have a space for discussing children, even if it is not applicable to everyone, because it is a discussion that is nearly impossible to have outside of these forums.

No comments:

Post a Comment